Review: Three titles from Toon Books

We’ve all read those articles I like to mercilessly mock. You know the ones that have headlines like “Zap! Pow! Bang! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!” They tell you that there are a bunch of comics out that have all kinds of terribly adult things in them and people are actually taking comics seriously now. Or something.

And sure, they need to stop writing these articles, but they make me a little sad for other reasons.

Kids like comics. Kids deserve comics. You know you had more than a few Archie Comics digests lying around and you probably enjoyed your share of Disney comics. This was long before you picked up any of the superhero stuff. You liked comics as a kid.

While there’s some exceptions, while everyone was busy trying to make comics all serious, people forgot about making comics for kids, or began to view them as somehow less interesting and inferior to the adult stuff.

Art Speigelman, whose Maus is often cited in those “comics aren’t for kids!” articles, and his wife Françoise Mouly, created Toon Books, comic-book style books for the youngest of readers, ages 4-8. And they are really awesome. I know I am often accused at having the same tastes as a 5-year-old, but I absolutely loved these. I was delighted to be provided with review copies of all three.

Spiegelman’s own Jack and the Box is probably for the youngest end of the target age group. It’s definitely a beginner’s book, with lots of repeated words and sounds as we follow Jack the rabbit as he plays with his new toy, a jack-in-the-box. Spiegelman creates plenty of inventive silliness with his bold art and color palette of muted primary colors. I found the jack-in-the-box to be a little scary looking, but there is still a playfulness to him. This reminded me quite a bit of the spirit of Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat and that’s not faint praise. This belongs on your child’s shelf.

Despite the word balloons, Eleanor Davis’ Stinky feels like a classic children’s picture book. It brought back memories of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series for me. Our title character, Stinky, is a troll-like creature who likes everything that smells bad. He has a pet toad, lives in a swamp and dines on anything pickled. He gets scared when a new boy, Nick, approaches his forest. It’s a neat reversal of roles — the monster being afraid of the human — and Stinky, despite his habits, comes across as pretty sweet. Davis’ art is adorable and round, giving the story a gentleness. There are also funny visual gags, like sleeping bugs and a hedgehog with a clothespin over his nose. The ultimate lesson of not judging people (or monsters) by appearances is always a good one. I giggled a lot at this book and was quite charmed by it. While I know some children who I should probably share this book with, I may be keeping it for myself.

Mo and Jo Fighting Together Forever, written by Jay Lynch with art by Dean Haspiel, feels the most like a comic book out of all three. It’s probably for the older readers in the age range, too. Mo and Jo are squabbling siblings who are given a super-suit by the Mighty Mojo. After they rip it in half, their mom creates two new suits from it for each of them, each with different powers.

In true comic book style, the brother and sister pair each decide they have what it takes to fight Lizard-like Saw Jaw. Mo uses her stretchy arms and Jo uses his magnet boots, but neither can defeat Saw Jaw alone. So of course the siblings learn they have to work together in order to beat the bad guy. While that outcome was pretty obvious to me from the start (I am, of course, much much older than the target demographic of this book), getting there is fun. Haspiel has a great understanding of super hero conventions and enjoys playing with them. Lynch’s dialogue is snappy and the siblings’ exchanges ring true as they try to outdo each other. This is the perfect book for the budding superhero comic book fans in your life, and maybe they’ll learn something along the way.

When I wrote about the children’s comic panel at SPX, I joked that I hoped there would be articles proclaiming “comics aren’t just for adults anymore.” I love that there are more and more great comics out there for children now. Don’t get me wrong — I like that there are more serious and mature comics out there, too, but I think there’s plenty of room for all of it. I love that imprints like Toon Books are dedicated to that cause.

Leave a Reply